Scent Increases Product Recall


Would you prefer a scented pencil? How about a tennis ball? Tires? You might not care, or even prefer to avoid the olfactory assault altogether, but research shows you’ll remember the product better if it has a scent.

“Product scent may be particularly effective at enhancing memory for product information as a function of its ability to enhance a product’s distinctiveness within its surrounding context,” write authors Aradhna Krishna (University of Michigan), May Lwin (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore), and Maureen Morrin (Rutgers University).

Scent enhances a product’s distinctiveness, which helps consumers remember it down the line, the authors found…

In one study, the authors had 151 participants evaluate pencils that were unscented, scented with pine scent (common), or scented with tea tree scent (uncommon). “We found that the memory for the scented pencils was much greater than memory for the unscented pencils, and that this effect was especially pronounced after a time delay,” the authors write. They also found that participants’ memory of the uncommonly (tea tree) scented pencils was more resistant to decay. [From the Journal of Consumer ResearchDoes Scent Enhance Product Memories?]

Some of the product attributes presented to the subjects were claims like, “Is endorsed with the Green Seal environment standard,” “Contains superior graphite lead,” and “Are made from premium oak trees that hail from California.” The subjects remembered these and other characteristics better for the smelly pencils.

Another experiment tested the effects of ambient scent; the researchers found that recall of all objects in an environment was improved by an ambient scent, the recall of individual products wasn’t aided significantly. The full paper, Scent and Product Memory, can be accessed here.

In reading this study, I wondered about the novelty effect. I might remember a pencil that carried a tea tree aroma simply because such a scent would be unexpected and unfamiliar in the context of a writing instrument. On the plus side, it’s worth noting that the improved recall was achieved without the aid of scent cues. Based on other research, I’d expect that exposing subjects to the same scent when quizzing them weeks later would further increase recall. (See The Brut Effect: Cologne Doesn’t Really Make You Smarter.)

The neuromarketing takeaway is that people will remember more about a product that is scented. We don’t know how effective scent would be if many or all products in a category are scented. It seems likely that there is a first-mover advantage for those who employ olfactory marketing in a new category. If your product is unexpectedly scented and competitive products are not, people will remember not just the scent but what you tell them about the product. Another first-mover plus is that in the U.S. scents can be trademarked. So, if you attach a particular scent to your product, you can stop competitors from using the same (or, presumably, very similar) scent.

  1. matt. says

    hey roger – have you seen this: ? fragrance manufacturer in brazil figuring out a way to have a ‘scented’ web banner…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s clever, Matt! Too bad the hardware isn’t standard…


  2. Tracy Pepe says

    Well done Roger – nice blog – as usual!

  3. Megan Zuniga says

    They did say certain smells triggers various memories for different people. And the main reason why children love their parents first and foremost is their smell. Also the main keys to training and taming animals is through smell. The olfactory system is very powerful. And to be used for marketing is a great idea. Now, if they could invent computers that could emit certain smells.

  4. Gener D. Maylem says

    I am a neurologist. I understand the role of olfaction in human behavior. Even in some lower forms of animals, their sense of smell is very powerful as they use this in their quest for survival, e.g. fight against their predator, search for food and even their sexmate.
    In humans, this is very evident.There is a connection between the olfactory lobe and the limbic system and eventually to the cerebrtal cortex. In neuromarketing for instance, while we understand the logic, I wonder how these biological parameters translate into neuromarketing tenets like, attention, emotional engagement and cognition. I am toying the idea on the use of EEG correlates to explain this concept, whether natural or artificial scents. Do they show consistent response patterns?

  5. Tracy Pepe says

    It is a fascinating theory and I would be interested in your results. I do recommend the book buy-ology by Martin Lindstom –

    He has conducted some very interesting research on scent.

  6. Stanislav says

    There is no answer in intial paper and your article, WHY scents work. Just a fact that using scents increase sales.
    Could you please explain, what happens inside human body to produce such reaction. As we talk about neuromarketing, there must be some neuro mechanism, which grants such human reaction.

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